One Sunday afternoon in winter in the early 1980’s I was driving on a gravel road toward a small First Nations reserve where I was going to lead a service. On the way into the reserve I saw a car in the ditch, with a couple of people trying to push it out again. I was already late for the service, and I knew that if I stopped I would be even later. I was about to go on by when I remembered the story of the Good Samaritan! Was I going to be yet another example of the priest and the Levite who ‘passed by on the other side’? I quickly pulled over, snarling a bit about God’s sense of humour, and helped the people to push their car out of the ditch. I was twenty minutes late for the service, but the people seemed to understand when I told them what I’d been doing!
As we heard in our gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan is part of Jesus’ answer to a series of questions put to him by a lawyer. We find those questions in Luke 10:25-28:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live”.
As we begin to think about this text, the first thing we have to be clear about is the question that the lawyer was asking Jesus. When the lawyer said to Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what did he mean? What is eternal life?’ Older translations of the Bible used the phrase ‘everlasting life’, and so generations of Christians have grown up thinking that the main characteristic of eternal life is simply that it never ends - like Super Mario, only worse! So ‘eternal life becomes chiefly a matter of going to heaven when you die and living there forever. In fact, to some Christians, that’s the main thing salvation does for you: it assures you that you’ll live forever in heaven when you die.
But in the original language of the New Testament, Jesus says nothing at all about the duration of life and nothing at all about heaven. The phrase he uses in the original language can be translated literally ‘the life of the age’, and the word ‘age’ means the new age, the age of the kingdom of God. Let’s explore this idea for a minute.
In the time of Jesus, Jewish people believed that the world’s rebellion against its creator would not last forever. God would intervene; God would send the Messiah to end injustice and oppression and bring in peace and prosperity. God would reward his faithful people and punish the wicked - not in some future, non-physical existence, but in the physical world of time and space.
But some people asked “What about those who were faithful to God and died without seeing this happen? Have they missed out on their chance to participate in the kingdom of God when it finally comes?” “Not at all”, was the reply; “they will be raised to life again so that they too can share the joy of God’s kingdom”.
The next question, obviously, was “How can I be sure I’m going to be one of those who participate in the new age to come, the age of God’s kingdom?” The usual Jewish answer in Jesus’ time was “By faithfully observing God’s laws, including keeping the Sabbath, avoiding unclean foods, offering right sacrifices and so on”.
We can tell from the things Jesus said that he firmly believed in the idea of the coming of the kingdom of God, but he modified it in a couple of ways. Firstly, most people in his day believed there would be a clean break; the old age would end and the new age would begin. But Jesus acted on the assumption that there would be an overlap period; the new age of the kingdom of God began with his life, death and resurrection, but the old age of evil is continuing in parallel with it until he returns and his kingdom is finally established forever; as we say in the Nicene Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.
The second difference is that most of Jesus’ contemporaries saw the new age of the kingdom of God being established by military force. In contrast, Jesus told parables about yeast gradually working its way through the whole loaf, and about a tiny mustard seed growing into the largest of plants. To him, the kingdom would be spread by the power of God working through disciples who lived the lifestyle of the kingdom in their daily lives. And what are the characteristics of that lifestyle? Love for God, and love for one’s neighbour.
So you see the difference between Jesus and the lawyer who questioned him. To the lawyer, ‘eternal life’ is future, and the question he’s asking is “What’s the pass mark? What do I have to do to get in?” He understands the two commandments - loving God and loving your neighbour - as qualifications he has to have in order to enter the kingdom and receive eternal life. But to Jesus eternal life is already present, and the two great commandments are not qualifications for eternal life; they are eternal life. It’s not “Do this, and you will receive eternal life as a reward”, but rather “Do this, because this is what eternal life looks like”.
There are two things we modern Christians need to notice here.
The first is that these two great commandments are not the price of entry into the kingdom of God. If they were we’d be in trouble, because they’re way out of our reach. Can you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength - wholeheartedly, with no reservations, with every fibre of your being given to God and nothing given to evil at all? Can you love your neighbour as yourself every moment of the day? I know I can’t do it. If this is the entrance exam for the kingdom, I fail every day. But the good news is that God reaches out to people who fail and accepts them by his grace. So the first step into the kingdom of God is to put our faith in Jesus and accept his love as a free gift of grace.
The second thing we modern Christians need to remember is that once we’ve received the gift of the life of the kingdom of God, we will spend the rest of our lives learning to live out these two commandments. Everything else is just clarification. All the services we attend, all the Bible studies in which we participate, all the sacraments we receive - all these things are just resources to help us become people who love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. According to God, that’s the meaning of life; everything else is window-dressing.
So eternal life is not so much about how long we live but how well we live. It’s about the power of the Holy Spirit living in us now, so that we can become the kind of people who love to live by these two great commandments of Jesus.
But what does this mean in our daily lives? Like a good member of parliament, the lawyer asks a supplementary question, and we could understand it as asking ‘What does eternal life look like on a daily basis?
The actual question the lawyer asks is in verse 29: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ The thing I want you to notice is that nowhere in this parable does Jesus answer that question; rather, he tells us how to be a neighbour to those in need.
Why doesn’t he answer the question? Because it’s the wrong question to be asking. The lawyer still hasn’t understood. He still thinks of the two great commandments as the entrance exam into the kingdom. “Who is my neighbour?” really means “What’s the least I can get away with? Exactly who do I have to love? After all, if I live in a village of fifty people and only twenty-five of them turn out to be my neighbours, why would I want to waste time loving the ones who won’t bring me eternal life?” This is the lawyer’s attitude. Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, on the other hand, shows that the life of the kingdom of God is all about showing mercy to those who are in need, whether we get rewarded or not.
In his story, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly why the priest and Levite didn’t help the man; the point is simply that they saw a need and did nothing. Perhaps they didn’t even really see him. In the 1999 movie At First Sight, a blind man whose sight has been restored by surgery discovers that sighted people don’t see everything. He and his girlfriend walk past a beggar on the street and she doesn’t even notice. Perhaps the priest and the Levite were in that kind of space.
What about the Samaritans? Who were they? They were the descendants of foreign nations brought in by the King of Assyria when he destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C. They had adopted some aspects of the worship of the God of Israel, but the Jews considered them to be heretics who had perverted the true faith, and they would have little to do with them. The irony in Jesus’ story is that the priest and the Levite knew the law of God but didn’t practice it; the Samaritan’s beliefs may have been questionable, but he was the one who actually practised the law of God!
Of course, the Samaritan could have used all kinds of excuses for not helping the man. He could have said “Maybe the bandits are still around, waiting for me to stop and help so they can rob me too”. He could have said “It’s his own fault” or “It’s not my responsibility to help the needy - the government should do it”. He could have said “I can’t afford two days’ wages to pay for his medical treatment” or “I’m too busy with my business to take the time to help this man properly”. He could even have said “I think the church should help people like this; I’m going to call Rabbi Jacob and get him down here as fast as possible!” But he made none of these excuses. He saw the need and he responded with the love of God. He loved his neighbour as himself.
Let me make two observations in how we might apply this story to our own lives.
First, this story shows us that Christian living is not out of our reach. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to serve people. All you have to do is move through your normal day with your eyes open. Back in the 1960s a Texas oilman named Keith Miller was learning to live as a new Christian in an oil company office. He made a decision that every time he went for a drink from the water fountain he would pray for the other people in his office. However, he found that he didn’t know enough about them to pray for them. So he started inviting them out for coffee and listening to them, and gradually as they got to know and trust him they opened up to him about their lives and their struggles. He soon discovered that there was a Christian mission field right there in his oil company office!
The chances are that in your office, or on your block, there is someone whose marriage is ending, or someone who is struggling to make ends meet, or someone who has an illness that causes them a lot of trouble, or someone with an addiction problem of some kind. Living the life of the kingdom of God simply means noticing these things, and doing what we can to help. That’s what the Samaritan did.
But I also need to point out to you that this picture is incomplete. Luke chapter ten has five more verses, which we will read next week! In them we will read about two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha was busy preparing supper and organising things for Jesus, and scolded her sister Mary who simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. But Jesus defended Mary, saying that ‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’ (v.42). In other words, in order to keep a proper balance in our Christian lives there are times when we need to stop working and simply sit in God’s presence, listening for the word of Christ.
There’s one more thing I need to say before I’m through. Sometimes when you’re in a really deep sleep and are dreaming hard, you think you’ve woken up, but eventually you discover that it’s just part of your dream. Something like that can too easily happen to us as Christians. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’ve talked about something we’ve actually done it. We think we’ve woken up to the Word of Christ, but in fact we’re still dreaming.
In John 5:39-40 Jesus gives us a warning: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life...yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. That’s what the lawyer was doing. He asked about the commandments, but in fact he already knew the answers to his questions. His problem wasn’t lack of information; his problem was that he wasn’t practising what he already knew. And so often that’s true of us too. We know what Jesus is calling us to do. We’re well aware of these two great commandments. All that remains is for us to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit and then go about our day with our eyes wide open to human need and our hearts full of the love of Jesus, taking every opportunity we can to make a difference. Talking is good, but if talking doesn’t lead to doing, it’s just so much hot air. As Jesus said to his disciples in another context: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).